Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

BLOG #11, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ONCE UPON A TIME 141 YEARS AGO
March 12, 2014

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What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.

I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!

BLOG #31, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part One
August 1, 2012

Yes, it’s true! Six days ago, Terry Bolinger and I were privileged to experience tomorrow’s publishing world before it actually arrived. The venue was one of the oldest and largest publishing conglomerates in the world, and we were graciously given a two-hour VIP tour.

As we threaded our way through room after room of machinery, we experienced first a world I felt supremely comfortable in: the world of traditional print, that began during the decade of 1440 – 1450, with the German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg leading the way with his 42-line Bible in 1456, 556 years ago. That Golden Age of Print reached its zenith during the century beginning in 1880 and ending in 1980 (roughly speaking). I am personally a product of its last half.

Occasionally, during my blogs and published writing, I have referred to the tides of life: periodically, both collectively and individually, we experience ebb-tides and incoming-tides. They are God-given because nothing in all creation is static, for change is constant. But both ebb-tides and incoming-tides dramatically alter our lives, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of the most poignant and pertinent lines in all literature were penned by the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson in “The Mill,” which contains in its muffled understated lines two work-related suicides:

“The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
‘There are no millers any more,’
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.”

The second stanza contains his suicide by hanging, and the third concludes with her drowning.

Back then, every self-respecting hamlet and town boasted a mill, where farmers brought the product of their land to be ground into food for themselves and their livestock. But suddenly, due to the pace of technological change, the miller realized with a shudder that since “There are no millers anymore,” his place in the world had been eradicated; the only career he knew was, without preamble or advance warning, no more. The mill itself, in which he and his ancestors from time immemorial had invested their life savings, was now all but worthless. Facing absolute financial ruin, he concluded that suicide offered the only viable alternative to starvation and bankruptcy; and she, facing a world which demeaned women and offered them terribly few career options, was so overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation, that she quietly slipped into the mill-pond, feeling it offered the least messy departure from life.

There is an equally powerful short story written by the English author John Galsworthy. Simply titled “Quality,” it tells the story of a London shoemaker who prides himself on making the best and longest lasting shoes and boots it was possible to make. His customers knew their footware would be custom-made to their own foot contours. Of course they took time to make for each was a one-of-a-kind work of art. But technological change made possible mass market footware at lower prices and instant availability. And Galsworthy’s protagonist ends up starving himself to death rather than compromise on the issue of quality. Whenever I have read this story out loud to my students, there has been absolute silence in the classroom, the ultimate tribute to a life-changing story.

So what Terry and I saw and experienced six days ago represents both an ebb-tide to a vanishing way of life and an incoming-tide whose long-range impact can only be guessed at. One reality is, however, inescapable: life as we know it, and have known it, will never be again.

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We will pick up where I left off (beginning the publishing house tour) next Wednesday.